Victim or victor?
Mennonites too often nurture a modern martyr mentality; our passive-aggressive behavior can be a destructive power playBy John Schrock
When I was in elementary school, I checked Martyrs Mirror out of my church library. It surely shaped my understanding of Christian faith. I learned that I should be willing to suffer for my faith.
While I still affirm this, I wonder how a martyr mentality is serving Mennonites today. We in North America live in a much different context than the tumultuous European setting of early Anabaptism. It is unlikely we will be killed — or even persecuted — for our faith. And yet I have observed a remnant of the martyr mentality with less than positive consequences.
It seems many Mennonites are at times unwilling to take responsibility for their thoughts and actions. When challenged, they play the martyr, expecting to be treated badly for standing up for what they believe, welcoming the opportunity to be victimized.
A byproduct of this martyr mentality is indirect communication. Such martyrs feel wounded by what happens when others do not know how to interact with them since they have not done a good job of communicating their thoughts. They either withdraw or take out their feelings in other ways — perhaps talking about hurts behind the backs of those they feel have victimized them. This is “passive-aggressive” behavior.
I say “they” when describing passive-aggressive people, but also I struggle with this. It is as if it was engrained in my DNA over generations. I unwillingly respond to conflict by avoiding it and then blaming others for the relationship’s breakdown. I have tried to learn to identify this pattern, but relating in healthy, straightforward ways is an ongoing struggle.
It’s not just me. An Elkhart County, Ind., hospital in my Mennonite community has identified Mennonites’ passive-aggressiveness as an issue. It causes problems for all workers as they seek to provide health care.
Passive-aggressive behavior can also cause conflict in congregations. Wanting to avoid conflict, Mennonites seek to mask or gloss over divisive issues, hiding a conflict’s true source.
The victim’s role has much power. People feel sorry for victims and wonder how the accused victimizers can be so hurtful. While concerns for justice are important, and there are power dynamics at play in all relationships, there is often an unhealthy energy around many victims’ complaints.
Congregations need to be aware of the power passive-aggressive victims wield. When an accusation is made, it is important to discern if attempts at open communication have occurred.
Christian faith is based on martyrdom — Jesus’ death on the cross. Was Jesus a victim? If so, of what? Some theology places Jesus in the role of victim, a pawn in a cosmic chess match between God and Satan. The New Testament is clear, though, that Jesus willingly chose the death he suffered. (See John 18:11 and Matt. 26:53 for Jesus’ words regarding his willingness to be taken prisoner and die on the cross.) Jesus saw himself as confronting the principalities and powers. As a result, God allowed Jesus to triumph through death and subsequent resurrection. The faith affirmation that “Christ arose” is not a victim mentality. Rather, it is the claim that Jesus was a victor over death.
As followers of Jesus, we have a choice: Do we live our lives as victims, passively accepting others’ hurts and insults but then seeking to exact revenge in underhanded ways? Or do we live in the power of Christ’s victory, realizing we are responsible for our actions and interactions and living victoriously?
I hope to live victoriously and find ways to overcome the passive-aggressive tendencies I developed growing up in a Mennonite setting. I trust other Mennonites desire to overcome the martyr mentality and want to live victoriously as well.
John Schrock is a Mennonite Church USA pastor working on a doctor of ministry degree through Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich.
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